Mary’s Playlist: All-Time Favorites

Saturday May 22, 2010
Mary's Playlist: All-Time Favorites

Looking back over 30 years with Musica Sacra.

This will be an eclectic mix of Artistic Director Mary Beekman’s favorites culled from 30 years of programming. Expect this concert to run the stylistic gamut—from Senfl’s praise of the Virgin Mary to Dinerstein’s hopping frogs—as we celebrate the wide range of the choral medium and its ability to inspire, entertain, thrill, and move us.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Welcome to Musica Sacra’s final concert of our celebratory anniversary season. In this program, I have collected favorite choral pieces performed with Musica Sacra in my thirty years of artistic direction. This is an undisciplined selection of works chosen pragmatically by my heart with no regard for anything else. I did decide to restrict myself to secular works, but that was my only constraint. Imagine that, loving jewelry as I do, you were invited into Tiffany’s to select any and all of the pieces you liked as long as you could wear them out of the store, and you will get a small sense of the task I had in making up this program. I’m already regretting the omission of many pieces that I did not include, but… there’s always next season! — Mary Beekman

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Hello My Baby, Joseph E. Howard, arr. Robert de Cormier

First presented in 1992. When I first came across this arrangement in a music store, the title rang a bell from the dark recesses of my childhood. I had been an avid cartoon watcher, and in my youth the cartoons available on television were those that had been made for movie goers of all ages by companies such as Warner Brothers. Someone beat me to the search on YouTube for the cartoon character who acquainted me with this song: Michigan J. Frog. You can see his interpretation on YouTube; we hope that you agree we’ve gotten the spirit of it correctly! We bring back a Musica Sacra alumnus, Eric Greimann, who captures the essence of this work, although he does substitute a straw hat for the top hat of Michigan and a tenor voice for baritone! We also try to channel Rudy Vallee in our interpretation, a ‘crooner’ from the 1920s who appeared in caricature in early cartoons.

My Love Dwelt in a Northern land, Edward Elgar, text by Andrew Lang

First presented in 1994. I’ve always loved this work; to my mind it is the musical equivalent of that golden light you see around 7:30 in the months of May, June and July. The languid lines throughout and harmonic stasis in the center of the work mirror the relaxation and openness creatures allow themselves when they finally realize the cold and dark of winter are gone for good. The twist in expectation at the ending is in perfect keeping with the melodramatic sensibility of the Victorian era. This is the only work that was recommended to me by my father, who heard it on the radio in the ’70s and told me about it. Our musical tastes were very different—his tending towards the emotional excesses of Romanticism and mine towards the restraint of the Baroque—but our minds certainly met in our mutual love for this piece!

Bacil (Bacillus) From El Bestiari de Pere Quart (1964), Manuel Oltra; Text: from “Bestiari” (1937) by Joan Oliver/Pere Quart (1899-1986)

First presented in 1995. Perhaps the only work written in homage to a microbe? The setting reminds me of the busy life revealed under the microscope of high school biology: a subculture invisible to the naked eye whose denizens dart here and there with delightful erraticism. The brevity of both the work and its vocal lines suggest the minute size of the subjects; the center section, in which all parts chug along in synchronicity, suggests their omnipresence.

Three Choruses from e.e.cummings, Peter Schickele, text by e.e.cummings

First presented in 1981. These pieces, published in 1967, are the handiwork of a man better known to audiences as PDQ Bach than by his actual name: Peter Schickele. When I first became acquainted with them in the late ’70s, I didn’t understand why Schickele hadn’t composed more music in this ‘serious’ vein, but now, I think I may. These pieces are choral miniatures; their brevity matches beautifully the poetry of ee cummings they set. I imagine that they took considerably more effort to compose than his PDQ works, and that they had a much smaller audience.

Schickele unites each work with a different texture. In the first, homophony, where all voices move as one, dominates. In the second, it is a Webern inspired microcosm of minimalism; this texture sounds familiar to us forty-some years later, but was quite innovative at the time. In the third work, Schickele uses imitative polyphony to paint a charming panorama of a day at the beach. The soprano voices at the beginning evoke children calling to each other; the irregular line, initiated in the bass, and then moving through the tenors to the altos, suggests, in its ascent and descent, the ebb and flow of the waves as they break on the beach. The ungainly leaps in the alto line nicely encapsulate the scuttling movement of the crab as well as the children’s mixed reactions of interest and fear as they watch it.

Lay a garland, Robert Pearsall, text based on The Maid’s Tragedy by Beaumont and Fletcher, 1608–1611

Pearsall deleted some words and made it third person. First presented in 2008. What a beautiful piece! I discovered it just last year, hidden in a collection of 19th century partsongs that we purchased in order to perform the Elgar. As you probably infer, this era produced an oeuvre of which I am not overly fond, but these two pieces of the Elgar, better known, and this Pearsall, less so, made the $20 price per book almost worth it. This piece acknowledges the rich heritage of the 16th century British madrigal; it’s a 19th century amalgam of every sustained, suspension laden madrigal of loss or longing ever written in the Tudor era. Unlike those, however, its sonorities and harmonies are a bit easier to effect in a chorus of our size.

I Wanna Be Loved By You, Herbert Strothart and Harry Ruby, arr. Ruth Elaine Schram, lyrics by Bert Kalmar

First presented in 2004. Another cartoon character I enjoyed in childhood, Betty Boop, was modeled on “the ‘it’ girl,” so named for her overt sexuality, of the 1920’s silent films, Clara Bow, and the leading pop singer of the 20’s: Helen Kane. Ironically, Ms. Bow’s Brooklyn accent prevented her from making the transition from silent films to talkies, while Betty’s popularity took off with that same accent! Kane’s rendition of I wanna be loved by you became one of the big hits of 1928. In our interpretation, we try to channel the sensuality of the 1920’s flapper that Betty Boop personified.

If I Loved You, Richard Rogers, arr. Kirby Shaw, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

First presented in 1992. I found this arrangement in the Cambridge music store, Yesterday’s Service, which was a boon to choral musicians in the pre–YouTube, pre–mp3—heck!—pre–computer era. Its proprietress, Esther, would often have extra copies of works ordered by other choral groups in the area, and she would allow you to take a copy to look it over. Thanks to some high school show choir director, I became acquainted with the arrangements of Broadway hits by Kirby Shaw. Thanks to that director and to Esther, you now share the opportunity to hear Shaw’s beautiful choral expression of a beautiful melody.

Jimmie’s got a goil, Vincent Persichetti, text by e.e.cummings

First presented in 1994. Another e.e.cummings poem, set by Persichetti (who was also inspired to set dominic has in the abrupt homophony chosen by Schickele)! I grew up with Life and Look magazines; this piece captures the raw energy of the 50’s; I see these boys leaning against a Brooklyn brownstone with their cigarettes dangling from their lips, their hands in their pockets, their open-collared shirts and light colored socks. The girl in question—well, does any of us need help imagining the girl in question?

Tenting On The Old Camp Ground, Walther Kittredge, arr. Ralph Hunter

First presented in 1992. As a Harvard-educated upper-East-side New Yorker I was, and probably still am, a terrible snob, but I overcame my condescension towards the retailer JC Penney to get free copies of a book of choral arrangements they published and disseminated in honor of the bicentennial of America in 1976. In it I found this hauntingly beautiful arrangement of a work by the 19th century New Hampshire composer Walther Kittredge, known in his time as “The Minstrel of Merrimack.” JC Penney was right on the money to include this work; had they published just this they still would have given us the great gift of keeping our heritage alive. In the pre-Ken Burns era of the 60s and 70s, American songs of the 19th century had a reputation in erudite and pop circles alike for being hokey and beneath notice, so this piece was all the more remarkable.

The text of the song concerns two seminal events in the forming of this country: the early 19th century religious evangelical movement, known as the second Great Awakening, and the Civil War. In the former, preachers would ride into the wilds of the frontier to preach to pioneers at religious gatherings held in tents to accommodate the large crowds. In this melancholic song, Civil War soldiers remember these meetings as they bivouac on those sites. This song was popular on both sides of the war; apparently soldiers from one army might hear it sung by the other army in their nearby camp. In it one hears the longings of the soldier for war to end and for the resumption of his life as a civilian.

My Lagan Love, Irish Air, setting by James Erb

First presented in 1995. OK, I’ve got nothing to say about this piece. If you don’t find it as achingly beautiful as I do, please come up to me after the concert and tell me.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble: Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I, from 4 Shakespeare Songs, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

First presented in 2009. One of my sopranos, Katie von Kohorn, lent me a CD of songs of Shakespeare recorded by the Phoenix Bach Choir; on it I found the four delightful settings of Shakespeare by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. We presented three of the four in our final concert of last year’s season, but I had to revisit this one in tonight’s concert. Its frenetic energy, glissandos both rising and falling, and delightful text enliven any concert in which it appears.

Water Night, Eric Whitacre; poem by Octavio Paz, translated by Muriel Rukeyser

First presented in 2008. I came upon Eric Whitacre’s music upon discovering that our Direct TV got some premium satellite radio stations, among them VOX, which was devoted to choral music. What a bounty of treasure I found there, before XM radio got subsumed by Sirius and Sirius discontinued VOX! Among them the works of this contemporary composer, who, as far as I’m concerned, has done more to breathe new life into the choral genre than anyone since Benjamin Britten. I read on Wikipedia that he composed Water Night as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada. I programmed our 2008 concert Summer Nights on the Water to perform this piece. I love the miasma of choral sound he creates by opening up the tessitura, or vocal range, of the voices while filling in the intervals making up the harmonic chords with diatonic pitches. Those of you who know Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 will recall how he builds a chord stepwise from a unison note to the outer edge of the singers’ range; Whitacre does the same, but with more mellifluous results.

From O To Be A Dragon, Four Songs for Women’s Chorus and Piano (1989) Yehudi Wyner; text by Marianne Moore

First presented in 2002. We are extremely fortunate to have such talented composers as Yehudi Wyner making their homes here in the Boston area; it’s one of the things that lured me to stay here rather than return to New York City upon graduation from college. In my thirty years as Director of Musica Sacra, I have been honored to have, among others, Donald Martino, Earl Kim and Daniel Pinkham show up unexpectedly at concerts in which we performed their works. It never occurred to me to invite them; I wouldn’t have thought they would have enjoyed an amateur group, however skilled, interpreting their works, but I was very much mistaken. Composers love to hear life breathed into their works, even if the rendering does not fully meet their conception. We developed a very wonderful relationship with Dan Pinkham through our performances of his works.

Yehudi wrote these works in 1989 for his wife, the talented singer and conductor Susan Davenny- Wyner, to perform with the Wellesley College Chorus. The playful but challenging women’s parts are balanced by an even more challenging piano part. Until our accompanist, Terry Halco, performed it with us in 2004, I believe Mr. Wyner had always been at the piano in concert. I love the musical portrayal of the dragon’s immensity, achieved by means of extended note values and by a forte dynamic. This vastness is balanced by his musical depiction of the jellyfish’s elusive qualities, in which the words invisible and visible alternate in what seems to be the fastest tempo imaginable. Wyner, like Oltra, employs the temporally briefest of musical ideas to convey the minimally apparent properties of the creatures about which they both write. The erratic, unpredictable entrances of the chorus convey the observers’ squeamishness as they try to capture something that they feel simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by.

Frogs, Norman Dinerstein; Haiku translations by Harry Behn

First presented in 1995. This set of six pieces setting Japanese haiku inspired my program A Choral Bestiary. I love the programmatic nature of Dinerstein’s settings; they capture both the abrupt movements of the frogs’ jumping locomotion and the Japanese appreciation for the contemplation of nature. Dinerstein even includes an onomatopoeic rendering of the frog’s croak in the opening of the first and fifth pieces. He unites all six pieces with his use of the interval of the fourth; he builds chords with it to different effect, as evinced at the openings of An Old Silent Pond and Ho, for the May Rains. He also creates melodies with it, as you will hear in the imitative phrase to plant bamboo which occurs in the final piece of the set. In the meantime, there are frogs trilling, larks singing, frogs jumping, water splashing, and many other of nature’s delights observed in delightful musical detail!

Kolenna Sawa, Jim Papoulis

First presented in 2008. I programmed Voices from the Village in order to perform this piece, which I first heard in rehearsal of the New York University Singers, which my younger son Rob had joined as a freshman at NYU. Its conductor, Francisco Núñez, commissioned it of Jim Papoulis for the 2007 American Choral Conductors’ Association National Multi-Cultural Honor Chorus, and when Rob sang with him, he was in the process of making a recording of the work to be used as a learning tool. With its foot stomping, chest thumping, clapping, ululating, irregular rhythms, and mid-Eastern intervals of augmented 2nds what’s not to like?

Copyright ©2010 Mary Beekman except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.